Volkswagen's Golf is a front-wheel-drive subcompact that's available only as a four-door hatchback. It shares components and engines with the larger Jetta sedan and competes with vehicles like the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Fit, Mazda 3 and Toyota Corolla iM. S and SE trim levels are offered with prices that start at $20,910.
Both trims are powered by a turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 170 horsepower which mates to either a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic. Changes for 2018 include the addition of an available upgraded infotainment system that boasts an 8.0-inch touch screen and refreshed front and rear styling.
With 170 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque, the Golf's smooth-and-refined turbocharged four-cylinder provides ample acceleration -- especially in a class dominated by miserly and uninspired powerplants. The engine mates especially well to the slick-shifting automatic transmission. However, the manual transmission is such a joy to shift, it's a tough choice for those so inclined. Overall, the Golf delivers a powertrain that's significantly more sophisticated than its class and price point suggest.
EPA numbers of 25 mpg city and 34 mpg highway aren't too shabby either, though others in the class do better. Routine suburban commuting will likely net about 32 mpg overall, but if you throw in a mix of gentile highway commuting, you might see close to 40 mpg.
The Golf's European-inspired chassis and suspension provide a smooth and controlled ride that belies that car's price point. Volkswagen claims this is a positive byproduct of sharing chassis components with more expensive models in both the VW and Audi lineup. Truth be told, nimble handling and maneuverability have always been Golf hallmarks. The firm-and-accurate steering, responsive-feeling brake pedal and grippy tires give the Golf a fun-to-drive character that's only found by stepping up to sport models in the competitive set of cars. At the same time, the suspension is refined enough to provide a composed and comfortable ride on badly broken pavement.
The punching-above-its-class refinement transfers inside as well with a cabin that's quieter than expected at highway speed and switchgear that's positive and confident in operation. Though the interior design is typically Euro-black overall, more than a few swatches of chrome and aluminum dot the interior and almost every surface has a soft touch or refined feel. The addition of the new touch-screen and Android Auto and Apple Car Play support keep Golf tech competitive as well and the gauges and control layout couldn't be easier to see or navigate.
Offering ample leg and head room, the front seats are easily the roomiest in the class. Seat support is firm, but the bolstering is supple enough for comfortable long drives. Outward visibility is great but, sadly, most of the safety tech is only offered on the more expensive SE model. Rear-seat passengers sit low to the ground, but there is a surprising amount of knee and leg room given the Golf's tidy overall dimensions. Cargo space is generous and the hatch opening is wide. Interior storage is decent with a few covered and open bins throughout.
Bottom Line -- After just a few minutes behind the wheel, it quickly becomes clear that the Golf is no ordinary subcompact car. It's extremely refined and exceptionally roomy for its overall price and size. The buttery-smooth engine is a gem and the fun-to-drive nature is unexpected in the class. While the base price just north of $20K, the Golf might initially seem expensive, but when comparing apples to apples, it's priced within a few hundred dollars of most competitors. Skip the base S model and opt for the SE (manual if you dare) and you'll find a smile on your face every time you twist the key.